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Q1. "Mr and Mrs Smith loved their children so much. And they were very happy."

What does "they" refer to?

Q2. "Mr and Mrs Smith loved their children so much. But they were not happy at all."

What does "they" refer to?

Q3. The point of my question is:

"Does a following pronoun ALWAYS refer to the Subject of the previous sentence?"

"Can't a following pronoun refer to the Object of the previous sentence?"

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    Without further clarification, they could be either the parents or the children. If the subject was only one person, they would clearly mean the children. Mar 21 at 12:10
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    @KateBunting: The referent of they isn't necessarily fixed by one of possible targets being singular, because of potential "singular they" usages. The parent who was awarded custody of the children said they were very happy is "three-way ambiguous" as to whether s/he claimed the children were happy, or him/herself, or all of them collectively were happy. Mar 21 at 12:20
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    Compare "The car hit a fence, and it got a broken headlight." and "My car hit a fence, and it got a broken paling".
    – Peter
    Mar 21 at 12:24
  • @FumbleFingers True. I was thinking of "Mr. Smith loved his children..." Mar 21 at 15:10
  • @KateBunting: I know - and I had to think for a moment before I could come up with a context where the referent of the possessive was a single person of unspecified gender who could reasonably be interpreted as an alternative to the children in such contexts. Until "gender-agnostic" the parent floated into my consciousness, I was positively floundering there! :) Mar 21 at 15:17
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"Does a following pronoun ALWAYS refer to the Subject of the previous sentence?"

No.

Each pronoun should have a clear and unmistakable noun antecedent, otherwise there will be error of vague pronoun reference.

Neither Q1 nor Q2 has a clear single and unmistakable noun antecedent.

To correct this, Q1 and Q2 should have their pronouns, 'they', replaced with their nouns intended to be represented.

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  • I got it. Thank you for your help:) By the way, aren't "Mr and Mrs Smith' and "their children" noun antecedents? Are you meaning that the sentences each have TWO noun antecedents not ONE , so that's the problem?
    – mystery
    Mar 22 at 3:31
  • I learned that in case of ambiguity it refers to the subject of the previous sentence. But many Americans ignore this rule I think
    – ceillac
    May 13 at 3:51
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Not always, but in case of ambiguity, like in your two examples, then the subject of the previous sentence has priority. That's what I learned.

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